Hunting bullets

Modern marvels: why today’s bullets work so well

Your rifle is no more effective than the bullet it shoots. Everything hinges on that tiny missile that exits the barrel. 

A problem which has always troubled bullet makers is the bullet’s behaviour after impact. It is easy enough to make bullets to shoot accurately, but this is nothing compared to the problem of providing the right balance of expansion and penetration on living tissue.

The problem lies in the many variables encountered in the field. On one occasion a bullet will strike bone. On the next it won’t. 

The animal may be hit through the ribs where usually little penetration is needed, or through the shoulders or at an angle where a lot of penetration is needed.

The animal may be the size of a buffalo weighing 1200kg or a sambar deer weighing 270kg or a goat weighing 45kg. 

The bullet may hit the animal at close range where the velocity is still high, or at long range where it has dropped off. Making bullets that will hold together at short range, and still expand at long range, is a complicated process. 

The most efficient big-game bullets, therefore, are also the costliest.

Hunting bullets
The Nosler Partition loses its front section after impact but enjoys a good reputation on big game

Conventional soft-point and hollow-point bullets achieve the desired performance by varying their composition. Details such as the thickness of the jacket, changes in the hardness of the jacket, and the amount of taper in jacket thickness from base to tip, the shape of the bullet, core composition, amount of lead nose exposed, bearing length and many other factors have to be considered in order to gain the desired performance in each calibre. 

Some bullets which have the jacket bonded to the core also incorporate some way of locking the core against separation, such as the Hornady Interlock and Nosler Partition.

American bullet designs which originated during the 1930s were prolific and elaborate as to styles and names. Early controlled-expansion designs included the Bronze Points, Protected Points, Core-Lokt, SilverTips, Inner-Belted and Nib Nose Core-Lokt.

The Bronze Point is a hollow-point bullet with a bronze wedge set in the cavity to retain the spitzer shape and cleave open the bullet’s nose when resistance is encountered. 

The Remington Core-Lokt has metal scalloped at the nose with a generous amount of lead protruding. The round-nose Core-Lokt was one of the best bullets for deer in the brush. 

Hunting bullets
Nosler’s AccuBond is a modern design with tapered copper-alloy jacket, bonded lead-alloy core and white polymer tip to initiate expansion.

The Winchester SilverTip is a sharp-pointed soft-point with the point protected from deformation by a thin tin covering separate from the main heavy jacket surrounding the core. 

Peters Protected Points were similar design. The noses were hollow and collapsed when they met resistance. 

Later designs like the Nosler Partition, which features a closed wall of metal separating the frangible front section of the bullet from the heavier-walled rear section, was originally machined from solid stock.

Later, Nosler introduced its Solid Base bullet, with a tapered jacket, soft point and solid rear section to ensure deep penetration and sure drive through. The Solid Base gained a plastic point and became the Ballistic Tip.

The Germans developed some excellent designs such as the famous H-Mantel (which inspired the Nosler Partition), the Cone-Point, and Brenneke TUG and TIG. 

The Swedish firm of Norma came up with some excellent hunting bullets, including the Alaska, Dual-Core, Vulkan and Oryx.

HUnting bullets
These premium bonded-core big-game bullets offer the hunter a choice of reliable, top-performing projectiles

Good sectional density (proportion of weight to cross-sectional area) is an important factor in gaining deep penetration, but not necessarily so. The construction of the bullet is even more important. A long, heavy bullet will give deep penetration only if the jacket is strong, the core hard and the lead tip small.

Early cup-and-core bullets often opened up too fast on impact and broke up at close range. Only rarely did the bullet hold together well enough to achieve deep penetration, as they often shed the core. Once they got through the rib cage, heart and lungs were pulped and destruction inside the chest cavity was devastating. 

The higher the velocity at the time of impact, the quicker the expansion. Thus a bullet that might break a deer’s shoulder and go on through the lungs at, say, 200 metres was likely to blow up in the shoulder at 50 metres. 

When jackets were beefed up and the lead core hardened, these bullets expanded, penetrated more deeply and were usually recovered from game lodged under the hide on the far side.

In recent years traditional big-game bullets like those from Nosler, Hornady, Woodleigh and Speer have undergone great innovation in order to retain bullet weight and thereby increase penetration. 

More intricate controlled-expansion designs may justify their extra cost for specialised use on exotic big-game, but for the local soft-skinned variety and feral animals, conventional bullets are equally lethal and do just as good a job.

Hunting bullets
Long, heavy 6.5mm bullets like the 140gn Sierra, 155gn Lapua Mega and 156gn Norma Oryx are all good game bullets, but the Sierra has greater expansion at long range

Back in the 1980s Barnes changed the game forever with the introduction of their lead-free, monolithic all-copper expanding X-bullet. The X-bullet could be relied upon to expand and retain 95 percent of its weight while achieving complete penetration. 

It is my favourite bullet in the .257 Roberts and lofted out at 3200fps has accounted for more than 30 deer.

Barnes’ current range — which includes the TSX (Triple Shock X-Bullet), MRX (Maximum Range X-Bullet) and Tipped TSX with streamlined polymer tip — started a trend in bullet design that has been widely copied by other bullet makers. 

Now we have a choice of lead-free bullets including the RWS Hit bullet, Lapua Naturalis, Remington HTP Copper, Federal Trophy Copper, Hornady GMX and Nosler E-Tip. 

RWS has even come up with lead-free jacketed designs like the TUG Nature which has two tin cores and a nickel-plated jacket. 

The RWS Evolution Green features similar construction, but has a Speed-Tip point. The frontal core fragments on impact to wreck heart and lungs while the rear core in the shank holds together to give deep penetration.

Varmint hunters have not been forgotten in the shift to lead-free bullets. 

Hunting bullets
Sierra bullets have a traditional cup-and-core construction but handle most varmint and soft-skinned game very efficiently

Barnes pioneered with the Varmint Grenade, a flat-base, hollow cavity bullet with a copper-tin composite core. A highly frangible bullet, it disintegrates violently upon impact and scores dramatic kills on varmints and foxes. 

Hornady came up with a similar design, the NTX, for the hot .204 Ruger.

Today’s big-game hunters demand top performance from their bullets and want them to kill game as far distant as 800 metres. To this end many shooters started using target bullets which were specifically designed for accuracy, like the AccuBond Long Range and Hornady A-Max. 

Bullet makers responded to the demand and developed projectiles that will expand at low velocities and kill game at longer distances.

The latest hunting bullet designed to expand at low velocities is Federal’s Terminal Ascent, which is claimed to have evolved from Federal’s renowned Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and Trophy Bonded Tip bullets. 

Just like those two bullets, the Ascent has a copper jacket electrochemically bonded to the lead core to prevent them separating, and a copper shank below the lead core to ensure the projectile will penetrate deeply at closer ranges.

For the Ascent to hold up well over the long haul Federal gave it a boat-tail, a secant ogive and small meplat to reduce drag and improve ballistic performance. 

The Slipstream tip is made of heat-resistant polymer and the base features the AccuChannel design that first appeared on the company’s Edge TLR bullet. This is an angled groove with a sloped rear wall that lets air flow in and out to reduce drag.

The new 200gn .30-calibre Ascent bullet has the high G1 BC of .608 and the .300 Win Mag load expands at down to 1400fps and at distances of over 1000m.

The proof of the pudding, however, with any big-game bullet will be what happens at normal hunting ranges when the bullet smacks into the thick neck hair and rut-toughened hide of a big stag and how it behaves when it encounters heavy bone and thick muscles; whether it deflects or ploughs on through to tear up soft lung tissue and disrupt the entire nervous system; or whether it will run out of steam before it gets through the near shoulder. Only results in the field can tell.

Over the past decade, bullet manufacturers have made tremendous strides in developing projectiles which will give optimum results on all manner of game, despite varying ranges and shooting situations. 

In fact, today’s crop of hunting bullets are so good that hunters have little cause for complaint.




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Nick Harvey

The late Nick Harvey (1931-2024) was one of the world's most experienced and knowledgeable gun writers, a true legend of the business. He wrote about firearms and hunting for about 70 years, published many books and uncounted articles, and travelled the world to hunt and shoot. His reloading manuals are highly sought after, and his knowledge of the subject was unmatched. He was Sporting Shooter's Technical Editor for almost 50 years. His work lives on here as part of his legacy to us all.